There’s a misguided belief that just because you play an acoustic guitar and sing in a near-whisper close to the microphone, it makes you more honest than singer-songwriters who attempt to create an experience of truth in some other way.
Here’s the truth: Some songs are meant to calm you down. Some are meant to stir you up.
Some are transcendental, and some are just really dumb.
The religious hymn, praise to the king … songs filled with the sorrows of a dissolving marriage, or an inventory of lovers … they all have a place.
The dark, brave, thoughtful and serenely startling songs … tracks we can dance to, anthems we revolt to, beats we bounce to and sounds we make love to … they all have a place.
We may crawl out of a song feeling more in love, or younger, or angrier, or wiser, clutching a secret message of small meaning or nothing, nothing. We might seem lost. We might seem happy. There are a hundred different states of human yearning, and people need to feel them all.
What matters is that when a songwriter comes along with a pure heart and something to say, we listen.
Songwriters worry a lot about finding their voice. We all find our voice, though. By the time you’re ten or more years into your craft, you find it.
But that’s not the trouble. The trouble is getting rid of it.
Of course the song idea in my head has been done before. The question I have to answer is, “have I done this before?”
A mere cut and paste from something I shared before would be pointless.
Bringing my true self to my work, every time … shaping my sound until my own two ears say, “yes, that’s great, this surprises us.” That’s what I’m after.
Passionately pursuing a new song my whole life … that’s everything.
When I’m making up a song, I keep an ear to the ground for what people cast off.
An overheard remark in a train station, the half-sentences of friends workshopping love’s particulars in the local coffee shop: They’re the finder’s reward.
I listen in like an ecclesiastic to the human heart as it bares its splendor and its brokenness.
I listen, and write. And as I write, I polish what I’ve found, and as I craft it into a tune hopefully expose a genuine, consoling truth in the brokenness.
I pick up things others don’t ordinarily notice, like the flowers that thrive by the roadside as we pass on our way somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the only way to encounter the truth.
Subtraction is just one of those beautiful words. Beautiful, all that taking away. Because to take away is to leave something rare and visible behind; it’s addition someplace else.
When I make up a song, I subtract:
Sound. A pause can be as beautiful as the note. It can make you want the note more.
Words. I look for what not to say, not what to say. I sing, “nothing remains of love” and you, the listener, fill in the missing pieces. I invoke your imagination to reveal the fullness of how little is left. Forced rhymes, familiar metaphors, clichés: I subtract them, too, because they get in the way of making art that’s new and genuine.
Last, I empty myself from the song. I erase the flesh of me and the ghosts of experiences that inhabit me. My life is just the scaffolding for the song, something I tear down as I work through it. Small details from my life are borrowed to make something that isn’t literally true, but something new and truer. If it’s art, the song eclipses the source material.
This afternoon I begin work on a new song. By night, what will be left of me?
What something sounds like can’t change what it is:
The sound of a drawer opening …
The north wind on the telephone lines …
A motorbike along the lane …
Lilacs crashing through old barn walls …
The key turning in the door to an empty house …
Yet sound opens sound. It taps the spot that’s inside me with a lyric or melody, and the door to music opens:
The sound of clothes being emptied from the drawer by a departing lover …
The sound of the dangling farewell …
A biker who falls and in his fall hears his bones cry out …
The young sound in an old heart …
The hollow echo of the voice inside the door …
And me, walking beside you … humming like the air.